Spain’s official film submission for the Academy Awards is a ghost story titled The Orphanage-and it’s one of the tensest experiences I’ve ever had at the movies. The thrills and chills are aplenty, but they’re not cheap. A woman loses her only son and has to confront ghosts to get him back. Or is it all just in her head? The movie was produced by Guillermo del Toro, the masterful director of Pan’s Labyrinth. I sat down with the writer Sergio G. S¡nchez and director J.A. Bayona to discuss their film.
What was the inspiration for the script?
Sergio G. S¡nchez: My mother locked me up in a basement once. (Laughs.) Just kidding. I loved watching horror movies when I was a kid and reading horror stories, and I loved the works of Poe and, of course, I read The Turn of the Screw when I was like 12 years old. I loved it, but I did not understand it. Every year I kept going back to it, and I kept thinking, “Oh, I missed something, I missed something,” until I finally realized that it was completely open to interpretation. And that is one word that really marked me as a kid, and that’s basically what I wanted to do with The Orphanage. I wanted to do a haunted house film that would also be read as the downfall of this poor woman who is losing her mind as she is unable to cope with the loss of her son. So, basically, I just started from that in my own fears.
Most American horror films rely a lot on gore and violence. This one doesn’t.
Juan Bayona: Well, we were trying to focus on simplicity, which isn’t a very common thing nowadays. There is a trend to be excessive. And I tried to go back to the movies that I saw as a child, the movies in the ‘70s and even the ‘60s which kept things simple-not too many characters, just a single location, a very simple story. And besides, I’m a firm believer that the things you don’t show have greater impact than gore.
Underneath the thrills and chills, there’s a deep psychological study of this woman. Was this hard to balance?
JB: There is a real tradition in Spain about ghosts. Lots of authors write stories about ghosts. But it is not like the English or American tradition. We really made unique ghost stories in the ‘70s during the time of Franco. And all these filmmakers like Carlos Saura and V-ctor Erice, who made The Spirit of the Beehive-they were doing political films in the ‘70s that were about memories or about ghosts. You know, we don’t need to use these digital effects to create a ghost. You can be suggestive, subtle. That’s the real unique trait I learned from those movies. When you talk about Spanish culture, there’s a unique way of creating a ghost, and I remember doing that in this film and thinking that everything should have psychological meaning. It’s like, for me, the reason that there are ghosts in that house is because Laura conjures them with her fears and psychological state.